Purple Urchin: 10 years of community

Purple Urchin celebrated its 10th year as a community-oriented and environmentally-driven soap creator and retailer.   Photos: Rachel Fiset

By Rachel Fiset

For many small businesses that make up the very heart of the Glebe, the pandemic was not smooth sailing. But amid all the messaging about handwashing, it was a little easier for Purple Urchin because of the main product it sells – soap.

“It didn’t hurt that we sold soap,” laughed store manager and bookkeeper Rachelle Bélanger. “Everyone was about ‘let’s re-learn how to wash our hands,’ so that definitely didn’t hurt things at all.”

Over its 10 years, four of them in the Glebe, Purple Urchin has upheld the neighbourhood’s values of community, sustainability and care. The soap shop sells a variety of locally and naturally made products, all of which are vegetarian, most being completely vegan.  But it is more than just bars of soap – it offers various facial, body, hair and unisex products.

The mission of Purple Urchin? Give to the earth what it gives us. The store’s values are comprised of creating quality products, great customer service and doing no harm to the environment.

“I wanted to do something creative but that wouldn’t clutter up landfills or be a useless product,” said Rebecca Pereira, creator and owner of Purple Urchin. “Soap allows me to be creative.”

Pereira makes every product at her warehouse, ensuring every concoction gets the perfect amount of care, putting in 50 to 60 hours a week. She created Purple Urchin in 2006 as a home-based business selling at craft shows and eventually rented a space on Somerset Street West which doubled as a retail and production location.

“After six years, I moved the retail to Bank Street,” said Pereira. “Soap has a practical purpose because everyone needs it and it just washes away so it doesn’t clutter up the landfills.”

During the pandemic, Purple Urchin used closures to its and the environment’s advantage.

“We’re really big on the eco-footprint of the store,” said Bélanger. “We’ve actually converted most of our packaging to glass or paper in the last year. We’ve really taken advantage of those lockdowns and tried to make something productive out of them.”

The lockdowns also gave Purple Urchin the time to fulfill its dream of a refill station, which allows customers to re-use the bottles they’ve purchased or bring in their own containers to refill.

“We always get looks of surprise when customers come in, and they’re always pretty jazzed to find out they can just bring the container back to have it refilled that way,” said Bélanger.

The team noted that Purple Urchin was lucky it was already an established business both online and in-store when the pandemic hit and that their products are a real necessity. The store rallied with the community and used its good fortune to help local restaurants who were going through multiple shutdowns and varying restrictions. After getting a registration to sell hand sanitizer, Purple Urchin began donating it to local restaurants and cafés, such as Dreamland Café and Pure Kitchen.

“We also donated little handheld sanitizers for them  for their tables, so that their clientele would feel safe. I think we just really felt like we needed to do something,” Bélanger said.

Bélanger also noted that most small businesses close after five years and has credited Purple Urchin’s ongoing success to Pereira’s persistence and community support. Pereira said the fifth anniversary of Purple Urchin is one of her favourite memories of the business.

“So many people came out for that anniversary party, it just made me feel so appreciated and loved by the community,” said Pereira.

Bélanger added that Pereira doesn’t often get to interact with customers since she spends most of her time making the products, so she loves to get feedback and interact with the community when she gets the chance.

“People love the products and the way they support us has really helped us survive all this time,” said Bélanger.

Though Purple Urchin celebrated its 10th anniversary in November, COVID-19 made a big celebration impossible. “We really take the neighbourhood health and safety to heart. We are putting a party off until we feel it is safer,” Bélanger said.

Instead, they are continuing their plans to release a new product, which hasn’t been revealed yet, in a slow rollout in the coming months. In the meantime, Purple Urchin has one message for all community members: Wash your hands!

Rachel Fiset is a third-year journalism student at Carleton University.

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